The 2021 NFL free agency deals are starting to slow down, with just a handful of the top names still on the market. Numerous playmakers and impact talents have agreed to terms for 2021 and beyond. Which contracts stand out so far, and what have we learned from a week of players headed to new teams?
The negotiating period began on March 15 with huge deals for pass-rushers on the market, and free agency officially opened on March 17. The New England Patriots were the headline, agreeing to new contracts for the two top tight ends on the market — Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith — a pair of wide receivers in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, pass-rusher Matthew Judon and defensive back Jalen Mills, among others. Are they the winners of the free-agency period?
Our expert crew weighs in on free agency, including the most improved teams, the biggest surprises, underrated deals, curious team approaches, the Patriots’ busy week with their checkbook and how some quarterbacks on new deals might fare in 2021. Check back all week for more reactions to this offseason’s free-agent frenzy.
What was the best overall free-agent move?
Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: The Patriots signing tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. With Henry and Smith now in the mix, look for the Patriots to create stress for opposing defenses out of two-TE sets. I see Henry as a seam stretcher and middle-of-the-field target in the New England offense, with coordinator Josh McDaniels utilizing Smith’s dynamic traits as a tough matchup in the game plan.
Mike Clay, NFL analyst: The Browns signing John Johnson III. Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald got all the headlines, but Johnson was a key component to the Rams’ strong defensive play during his four years with the franchise. One of the league’s elite safeties, Johnson is versatile and talented enough to dominate in coverage and against the run while aligning deep, in the box or even at corner. He could be the linchpin behind a breakout for the Cleveland defense in 2021.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: The Cowboys re-signing quarterback Dak Prescott. Viewed in the big picture, the Cowboys got a Pro Bowl quarterback locked in until he is 31. Including last season’s time on the franchise tag, the Cowboys will have controlled at least five of his seasons after the expiration of his rookie contract. Yes, they paid a premium to do it, but Prescott’s price only would have gone up in 2022 — and could possibly have been prohibitive.
Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: The Cowboys re-signing Prescott. It was the most consequential move. In a league of haves and have-nots at quarterback, Dallas was tiptoeing dangerously close to crossing that line in the wrong direction. In terms of expected performance over the next five years, Prescott is probably a top-six or seven QB. When you have that player on your roster, you pay him and are grateful that you have the chance to do so.
Which is the most improved team after free agency?
Bowen: Washington Football Team. The Patriots addressed multiple needs during free agency, but I’m looking at Ron Rivera’s team here. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Curtis Samuel will bring more juice and explosive play ability to D.C. And on the defensive side of the ball, cornerback William Jackson III is an upgrade in the secondary. He is a physical, press-man corner, which will allow Washington to play more Cover 1 in 2021.
Clay: Cleveland Browns. They were a contender in 2020, but keep in mind that of the 14 playoff teams, they were the only one with a negative scoring margin (minus-11). In order to avoid a crash back to irrelevance in 2021, there was work to do on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Mission accomplished. Star safety John Johnson III is a game-changer of an acquisition; Troy Hill upgrades the corner spot opposite Denzel Ward; Malik Jackson adds quality depth at defensive tackle; DE Takkarist McKinley helps replace Olivier Vernon; and Malcolm Smith and Anthony Walker improve the team’s shaky linebacker corps. Already loaded on offense, Cleveland now arguably has a top-10 defense.
Seifert: New England Patriots. I’ll choose the obvious answer and let the rest of our crew scramble for deeper insight. Their offense is now much more explosive, thanks to wide receiver Nelson Agholor and tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, and their defense will get more pop up front from Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy. The departure of guard Joe Thuney is worrisome, but overall, the Patriots have unquestionably upgraded a half-dozen starting positions.
Walder: New England Patriots. There’s certainly reason to be skeptical of the value some of the moves bring — the Agholor signing stands out — but there’s no question that an influx of talent just flowed into Foxborough, Massachusetts, and New England will be better off for it in the short term.
Predict WR Kenny Golladay’s stat line for 2021 with the Giants.
Bowen: 65-767-8. Golladay has the ability to separate vertically, and he will give the Giants a boost on deep in-breakers and contested throws. That’s the body control and wide catch radius there. However, given the inconsistent play of quarterback Daniel Jones, I see Golladay finishing with around 60-70 receptions.
Clay: 73-1,128-7 … and I’ll say 126 targets. Golladay will be the clear featured target in New York, with Sterling Shepard best as a slot option, Darius Slayton working as a situational deep threat and Evan Engram, Kyle Rudolph and Saquon Barkley handling a majority of the remaining short-to-intermediate work. At 6-foot-4, Golladay is the team’s tallest wide receiver by three inches and will be very busy near the goal line.
Seifert: 52-633-6. The two most important players on a pass completion are the receiver and the quarterback. We know Golladay is capable of big plays and big numbers. But last season, Jones was off target on 16.8% of his throws, the ninth-highest rate in the NFL. It’s far from clear that Jones is a quarterback who can generate a huge season for a receiver.
Walder: 70-1,100-8. I’m a Golladay fan and have to imagine his contested-catch abilities will translate in New York. Sure, he’s taking a step back in terms of QB play, but he’ll also be the focal point of the passing game. And remember, Matthew Stafford played only eight games in 2019 when Golladay recorded 1,190 yards and 11 touchdowns.
What is the most underrated move so far in the free-agency period?
Bowen: Kevin Zeitler, G, Ravens. Zeitler is an upgrade on the interior of the offensive line, and his traits fit in Baltimore’s run-heavy system. He has the movement ability to pull on gap schemes, and he brings a physical approach at the point of attack. Plus, the veteran can establish his base in pass pro to hold off interior rushers.
Clay: William Jackson III, CB, Washington. Playing in Cincinnati during his first five NFL seasons, Jackson didn’t get a ton of attention. But the former first-round pick has emerged as one of the league’s top corners. Washington’s defense took a big leap in 2020, but it needed improvements on the back end to get to the next — and perhaps an elite — level. Teaming Jackson up with Kendall Fuller at corner gives Washington one of the league’s best CB duos and supplies it with a borderline top-10 overall roster.
Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Gerald Everett, TE, Seahawks. Everett was considered the No. 3 tight end in free agency, and the two players who went before him — Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — got a combined $32 million in first-year money. Seattle got Everett for $6 million. Smith and Henry are better players, to be sure, but the gap isn’t as big as you think. Many around the league believe Everett has top-10 positional talent if he can put it all together.
Seifert: Andy Dalton, QB, Bears. There is so much vitriol over this signing that its positives have been buried. (That’s my definition for “underrated” today, anyway.) Dalton is easily the best quarterback the Bears have trotted out over the past five seasons, from Mitch Trubisky to Mike Glennon to Nick Foles. He has taken five Bengals teams to the playoffs and could do the same for the Bears. He isn’t Russell Wilson, whom the Bears failed to acquire in a trade, but his upside has been ignored in the debate.
Walder: Daryl Williams, OT, Bills. He’s not a star, but you could do a lot worse at tackle than Williams, who had a slightly above-average pass block win rate last season. A three-year contract paying an average of $8 million per year is a nice deal for a 28-year-old solid tackle like Williams, especially considering Buffalo can get out of it for under $10 million after Year 1 if things go south.
Outside of the Patriots’ spending spree, what has surprised you the most about free agency so far?
Bowen: The length of the free-agent deals. We are seeing more two- and three-year contracts with players in their prime years, as opposed to four- or five-year deals. However, with the anticipation that the cap rises because of the new TV deal, these players will be in a position to hit free agency again with more prime earning years left.
Clay: A lack of action from the Indianapolis Colts, a 2020 playoff team and potential 2021 AFC contender that sits near the top of the league in cap space. So far, Indianapolis is at a net loss, having seen Denico Autry (division-rival Titans) and Jacoby Brissett (Dolphins) sign elsewhere. I know GM Chris Ballard isn’t known for irresponsible spending, but the Colts have a rare window to add star players with an already solid roster. I’m curious to see what they do in the coming days.
Seifert: I’m shocked at how almost no one seems to be blinking at the legitimately huge numbers in the contract the San Francisco 49ers gave left tackle Trent Williams. He is an undeniably great player, but he’s also turning 33 this summer and hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2013. We should at least consider the fact that this deal could cause the 49ers some long-term pain.
Walder: The slow-moving receiver market. I get it: There’s a great class of rookies incoming. But we’re talking about what is likely the second-most valuable position in the sport, so it’s surprising to me that someone as talented as Kenny Golladay remains unemployed at midday on Wednesday.
Which team has had the most confusing approach to free agency so far?
Bowen: Las Vegas Raiders. Adding defensive end Yannick Ngakoue should be looked at as a “plus” move for Vegas. They need a difference-maker up front, and Ngakoue has disruptive traits as a pass-rusher. But I’m still trying to figure out why the Raiders dismantled the offensive line. With Trent Brown being traded to New England, and the Raiders looking to move on from both Gabe Jackson and Rodney Hudson, Vegas now has vital spots to fill for an offense that wants to run downhill power under coach Jon Gruden.
Clay: Las Vegas Raiders. One of the strengths of the 2020 Raiders — a near-playoff team — was their offensive line. They’ve almost completely torn it down in recent days, including the bizarre trade of Hudson. They’ve also yet to replace any of Hudson, Jackson, Richie Incognito or Brown. Ngakoue and wide receiver John Brown were solid adds, but holes remain throughout this roster, including defensive tackle, corner, safety, offensive skill position depth and, of course, along the offensive line. GM Mike Mayock has a ton of work to do.
Seifert: New England Patriots. They are in part capitalizing on a depressed market in a year where they had excess cap space. But were it anyone but Bill Belichick at the controls, the condemnation would be nearly universal. Loading up on high-priced free agents like this rarely works. The Patriots have successfully identified specific targets in their past, most recently cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but they’ve never tried it in such volume — for good reason.
Walder: Chicago Bears. The moves not made — plus burning $10 million on Andy Dalton — display a lack of awareness about how far away this team is from contending. Checking in on Russell Wilson was worthwhile, but Plan B should have been blowing it all up (I’d start by dealing Khalil Mack) to set themselves up for 2022 and beyond. Instead, they’re showing a remarkable commitment to subpar football.
What is your gut reaction to the Patriots’ spending spree?
Bowen: It is completely out of character for the Patriots to spend big at the start of free agency. However, they are addressing critical needs here on both sides of the ball. Tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith give New England the opportunity to create stress for opposing defenses out of 12 personnel, while wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne will allow the Pats to stretch the field vertically. And on defense, Matthew Judon has the traits to be a productive pass-rusher in Bill Belichick’s schemed multiple fronts, while defensive back Jalen Mills can play multiple spots in the New England secondary.
Clay: I can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed, but it does remind me of what Buffalo has done the past few offseasons, building a winning roster by adding solid role players. Sure, the Henry and Smith duo is intriguing. But the likes of Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, Bourne and Agholor have primarily worked as rotational/depth players throughout their careers. Mills’ play has been inconsistent, and Judon has been a solid but unspectacular edge rusher. The Patriots are better on paper, but I’m not sure they’re a playoff team. That will likely depend on how well Cam Newton plays.
Fowler: It had to be done. This is New England’s way of getting right, acknowledging the draft alone won’t fix this roster. And some of these contracts will be obsolete in two years when the gambling money kicks in. I’m not sure about all the signings, but getting two premier tight ends forces defenses to play the run and pass without substituting.
Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter: It’s a balance between “Are they smarter than the rest of the NFL?” and “Will they regret straying so far from the draft/develop/re-sign philosophy that has proved to be the best approach for sustainable success?” I understand their strategy: The cap goes down, better in-their-prime players hit the market because of it, there’s less competition to sign them, their cap space is abundant and the future cap is going to spike. So in the end, I give Belichick the benefit of the doubt. He has earned it.
Seifert: They recognized the unique buyer’s market caused by the (presumed) one-time drop in the salary cap. The Patriots knew their roster needed to improve, but this seemed to be an attempt to capitalize on market forces as much as anything.
Walder: Two good tight ends on a New England offense again? Yes, you bet I’m intrigued. Overall this was a needed revamp to a lacking roster. I don’t love every move — that’s a high average annual value for Agholor — but in general it makes sense to be a buyer when so many teams are cap-strapped. I especially like the Judon signing.
Field Yates, NFL analyst: They’re a decidedly more talented team than they were 24 hours ago. I’ll hold off on a full evaluation until seeing the full details of the deals, but the Patriots had no interest in waiting around to improve a roster that needed it where they addressed.
Are the Buccaneers the Super Bowl favorites after they brought back all of their core?
Bowen: We should view the Bucs as one of the favorites to make another run at the Super Bowl, especially after re-signing key defensive players Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David. However, after just one day of free-agent moves and still over a month until the NFL draft, we need to see how the rest of the offseason shakes out here before making picks for the 2021 season.
Clay: At this very moment? Yes, I think they’re the league’s best team on paper. They’ve re-signed their most important players, with the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, Steven McLendon and Ryan Succop being their top remaining unsigned free agents. Even if none of them return, Tampa Bay’s roster is loaded and will have them in contention for a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy.
Fowler: Nah, let’s go AFC. The Kansas City Chiefs will be a favorite after they finish replenishing the offensive line, and the Buffalo Bills have made a major jump in each of the past two years. The next jump is an AFC Championship — maybe more. The Green Bay Packers have to break through at some point after two straight NFC Championship Game losses. Tampa is one of four or five teams in the mix.
Jenna Laine, Buccaneers reporter: I’m not ready to call them Super Bowl favorites again just yet, as we need to see how their running back, defensive line and kicking situations in free agency unfold. Specifically, what happens with Fournette, Suh and Succop? And while the Bucs are deep at receiver, Brown led the Bucs in targets over the final five weeks of the regular season before suffering a knee injury in the postseason. The Bucs are having conversations with all of them, but there’s only so much money that can go around.
What’s next for the Bucs after signing Barrett?
Adam Schefter explains what’s to come for the Buccaneers after re-signing Shaquil Barrett.
Seifert: Eh. I can’t necessarily name a team at this moment I think has a better chance to win the Super Bowl, but getting the gang back together isn’t usually good enough in football. What can they do to make themselves better, and have they done it yet?
Walder: No. Just because they’re running back the same players doesn’t mean we should expect the same results, especially with Tom Brady one year older. One prediction we can be confident in is that Patrick Mahomes will be the best quarterback in the league in 2021, and that makes the Chiefs the Super Bowl favorites.
Yates: They sure are. This team hit its stride in the second half of the season and has a clear path to a division title, the gateway to a potential first-round bye and another deep run.
Which edge rusher signing will turn out to be the best in two years?
Bowen: Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers. Barrett’s pass-rush production is already on the tape in Todd Bowles’ system. With schemed fronts and twists/stunts, Bowles can create one-on-ones for Barrett to cause disruption in the pocket.
Clay: Carl Lawson, Jets. He may not be the best of the group, but he may be the biggest upgrade over what his new team had previously. It seems like we’ve been waiting for a decade for New York to add an impact edge rusher, and the Robert Saleh regime finally got the job done. Lawson — whose 32 QB hurries trailed only T.J. Watt last season — has a chance for a full-on breakout in 2021 and beyond.
Fowler: Bud Dupree, Titans. He might be the most gifted pass-rusher in the group, so if he puts it all together in Tennessee, he has a chance to dominate. Expect a slow start to the 2021 season due to his ACL tear in December, but the Titans are playing the long-term game with a massive five-year, $82.5-million deal. His unique blend of power and speed will age well.
Seifert: Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers. His wild 19.5-sack performance in 2019 was no fluke, as he demonstrated in 2020. Playing in Bowles’ scheme for at least one more season should ensure that Barrett continues to put up big numbers.
Walder: Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers. He ranked seventh among edge rushers in pass rush win rate over the past two seasons, so I think he’s the safest bet to be productive in the short term despite his drop-off in sacks last season. I’ll give an honorable mention to Detroit’s Romeo Okwara, though. I’m excited by his upside in a non-Matt Patricia defense.
Yates: Denico Autry, Titans. While he won’t play exclusively as an edge player, I love the Titans adding Autry. It’s rare that players see their first major contract after the age of 30, but Autry has aged well and is just a no-nonsense, rock-solid player. Tennessee got better.
Which newly signed QB will have a better 2021 season, Washington’s Ryan Fitzpatrick or New Orleans’ Jameis Winston?
Bowen: Winston. I do think Taysom Hill sees reps this year at quarterback in specific packages for the Saints. But I’m going with Winston based on his traits as a thrower and his second-reaction ability in Sean Payton’s heavily schemed pass game.
Clay: Fitzpatrick. As things stand right now, I’d give the edge to him. Winston will face real competition from Hill and may not even start for New Orleans, whereas Fitzpatrick is a heavy favorite over Taylor Heinicke in Washington. Fitzpatrick has also played much better than Winston in recent years, even replacing him as the starter in Tampa Bay only two seasons ago.
Fowler: Fitzpatrick. Winston has a chance to be prolific in Payton’s offense. But there’s no hard evidence he can shake the turnover problem, and the Hill factor can’t be ignored. Hill’s early-down packages might take away from Winston’s bottom line. Fitzpatrick played some of the best football of his career in spots last year and goes to an ascending team.
John Keim, Washington reporter: Winston. I think there’s more to learn about Washington’s situation — what else does it add on offense? — before saying Fitzpatrick will have a better year, though I do believe he’ll have a good one. Winston has a head start in an offense that players have been in together for a long time while playing for one of the NFL’s best offensive minds.
Seifert: Winston. That’s assuming he wins the starting job over Hill, which seems likely but not a lock. In this case, I’m projecting better numbers for the quarterback of a Payton offense over the quarterback of a Ron Rivera offense. I like my chances there.
Mike Triplett, Saints reporter: Winston. My only hesitation is that Winston needs to actually secure the job by beating out Hill in camp, and I think it will be a legitimate competition. But Winston is the frontrunner, and he would be in a fantastic situation surrounded by people like Payton, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, not to mention that offensive line.
Walder: Winston. He really wasn’t that bad in Tampa Bay. Even in his 30-interception 2019 season, Winston ranked 16th in QBR. I like his chances in Payton’s offense, and he gives Payton the luxury of being able to call downfield plays too.